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Mental Health Took a Back Seat to Physical Health During COVID-19

Student transporters, health professional discuss renewed focus on employee wellness following unprecedented stress of past year

Practice proper hand hygiene, stay six feet apart and wear a mask in public. Even the youngest of school-age children can probably recite this process to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. However, that focus had its downside.

“Mental health and wellness are the topics that were least discussed during the whole pandemic. And I think they’re one of the most critical in the return,” said Monica Raygoza, director of transportation of Corona-Norco Unified School District (USD) near Riverside, California. “And as we think about student safety, there [were] a lot of things that were done and put in place to ensure kids maintain safety … But there wasn’t enough resources or conversations [about mental health.]”

She noted that when schools fully reopened in April, sanitation efforts increased, the use of gloves was encouraged, and masks mandated but addressing staff and student mental health was not a priority.

“When we look back at this pandemic, we could think about what we do well, and what we could do more of. For me I feel like it’s important that we educate our staff and our drivers on mental and physical wellness, so that they are able to provide the safety that the students need moving forward,” explained Raygoza, a passionate voice on the subject after losing family members to the virus.

Meanwhile, Angela VanBuren, the transportation services supervisor at United Community Action Network Head Start (UCAN) in Roseburg, Oregon, said she noticed that many of her staff returned from the extended school closure with increased anxiety about the future.

“There were times we did not even know if we would be working the next day,” VanBuren recalled, noting that the agency restarted in-person learning after spring break. “I found myself having the same feelings and let them know they were not alone, and we were all in the same boat together.”

Making You the First Priority

Raygoza attributed the importance of mental health to what she called the oxygen mask theory. She referred to flight attendants advising airline passengers to put on their oxygen masks first, before taking care of others in an emergency. “If you are not well and healthy, how can you possibly provide that safety to the students that we transport,” she continued.

Wellness starts with self-care, she added. “What I have found is that when you’re taking care of yourself and you’re doing what makes you happy, you just naturally have this positive effect on others,” Raygoza said. “That positivity and that passion, drive enthusiasm out, and it’s contagious.”

She explained that such an approach is similar to transportation officials encouraging their school bus drivers to proactively greet and smile at students as they board the bus. “I think it starts with self-care and taking care of yourself, and that you’re self-conscious about those things,” she added.

Stephen Sroka, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor in the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, agreed. He noted that the most important advice he can give is for transportation directors to take care of themselves.

“You cannot take care of others if you are not taking care of yourself. Lead by example, not directives,” he advised.

VanBuren shared that she often doesn’t see some bus drivers on a daily basis because they are transporting students across the entire county. If she hasn’t heard from the drivers in a while, she makes an effort to contact them and arrange a meeting.

“Take them out for a cup of coffee and have an informal conversation, or arrange to do a ride along if there is not time for coffee,” VanBuren advised. “I only have a small handful of drivers so giving them one on one attention is not difficult to do as long as I make it a priority, and they are my number one priority.”

She added that when schools closed in March 2020, she started sending group emails to the entire staff that shared videos or articles to create conversations. VanBuren said she began doing the same thing this month to promote mental health awareness.

She is also leaving notes on the driver’s seats while school buses are parked or sending staff a quick text to let them know how special they are. VanBuren said when her drivers are unloading students at the school, she makes an effort to stand outside and talk to the kids about how awesome their driver is.

“You should see the smiles and the blushes that it invokes from the drivers,” VanBuren said, adding that the blushes can be seen even through the masks.

Corona-Norco USD is also celebrating Mental Health Month, which Raygoza said the district is using as an opportunity to link mental health with employee wellness. She noted that it’s important to educate staff and drivers, while also providing them with resources and tools.

She said the district promotes various wellness apps as well as helpful resources through social media, flyers and the district’s YouTube channel. The apps include tips to address all aspects of wellness, including emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, mental, occupational, physical and spiritual. Raygoza added that often times than not physical health is the only component of wellness discussed, adding that there’s a lack of education into the other aspects of wellness.

“There’s the emotional and mental component, which is what we saw a lack of in our students while being out of school for such a long period, [as well as] the social-emotional piece,” Raygoza said. “And so, the same thing applies to adults when we have drivers out for such a long period.”

The transportation department at Corona-Norco Unified School District in California is celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month by incorporating spirit days. Focus Friday encourages the employees to wear green (as pictures) to show their support of self-care and health.

Now that the district is back to in-person classes on a modified schedule, the transportation department is creating committees, one of which focuses on wellness. Raygoza said this committee is going to focus on implementing year-long activities rather than simply a one-month initiative. She relayed that when the staff is healthy and taking care of themselves, they will be able to provide better service to the students.

One idea originating in the wellness committee, she said, is for driver to compete for the most steps logged each day. The main goal, Raygoza added, is for drivers to hold themselves accountable to reach the goals they set for themselves.

“No one told us how to take care of ourselves, and that was a huge factor [during the pandemic],” Raygoza shared. “It’s easy to become comfortable in your day-to-day routine and the day-to-day routine is our business [model]. It’s overwhelming, and [sometimes] we forget to take care of ourselves.”

Ways to Take Care of Yourself

Sroka provided five non-negotiable actions that everyone should be taking to provide improved self-care. These consist of building social relationships, eating well, exercising, practicing mental health stress reduction, and sleeping.

Now, more than ever, he said the power of relationships is paramount. “Trusted relationships are the basis of an effective working world including the school bus garages,” Sroka said, adding that word choice is a huge factor when building relationships. Because a cruel word cannot be unsaid, he explained that in order to build relationships one must use the four C’s, communication, collaboration, cultural competency and caring.

“And don’t forget the three L’s. Look, listen, learn and then talk,” he added. “As you know, our national pandemic mantra is ‘you are not alone,’ for good reasons. It is all about relationships and building a whole team to make a lasting difference after the pandemic, or, if needed, ready for the next one.”

He noted that while eating healthy sounds obvious, it’s often forgotten. “Would you put old dirty fuel in your buses?” he questioned.

Sroka added that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes a week of aerobic, strength and stretching exercises. Sroka noted that it’s not simply about going to the gym, but also choosing to walk or bike, for example, when going shopping. Or committing to do more yard work.

“Move more and sit less. Stand while you work,” he advised. “Stress has been called the silent killer because of the way it can destroy and impact all aspects of your life and health.”

Sroka added that the American Psychological Association reported that three out of four Americans have said that the pandemic has been a significant source of stress. With that, he advised practicing stress reduction exercises, such as deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, praying, and sweating.

He also advised going outdoors, limiting the consumption of news, reading a book, or calling a friend or family member. In addition, he said the average person needs seven to eight hours of sleep a night, adding that many health experts say sleep is the most important thing one can do to promote mental health.

The Power of Positivity

Meanwhile, VanBuren said UCAN is teaching positive intent with its preschoolers, and she’s starting to use it with the bus drivers as well. If she receives a complaint from a parent or a driver, for example, she always stops and thinks about how she can turn the feedback into a teaching opportunity.

“I am naturally a positive and supportive person, so it is not too hard for me to do, However, it has taken some practice and sometimes a great big pause before continuing with the conversation,” she said. “If I get negative or start getting worked up, all that is fuel [to] the fire. I keep it calm and grounded, and things seem to proceed on a positive note. I like to think that has influenced my staff to have a good, or at least a better outlook.”


Related: (STN Podcast E17) Transporting With Care: Guidance on School Re-opening & Student Mental Health
Related: Experts Share Messages Promoting Mental, Physical Wellness for Student Transporters
Related: TSD Session Shares Impact of Mental Illness on Bus Ride


VanBuren also prioritizes an open-door policy, whether she is at her desk or not. She said she encourages drivers to call her on her cell phone if they need anything. At that point, she stops what she is doing and gives them her undivided attention.

“My staff are so important to me,” VanBuren said. “I take it personally if they are having a rough go of it. I want to make sure that they know I am here for them. Their mental and physical health is key to how they perform their job. For the safety of the kids they transport, I need to make sure that my staff is in tip-top condition. If they need to take a few hours or day off to recoup, I will volunteer to drive their routes, and send them home to reset and rest.”

She added that a little bit of kindness and empathy go a long way toward helping employees feel appreciated, which can encourage them to share that same positivity with their co-workers and family members.

Sroka concluded that transportation directors should promote mental and physical health even more amid COVID-19.

“With students, a popular idea today is that we need to not only address the academic child but the whole child. In other words, a person is not just a [grade] point average or a job evaluation,” he explained. “It means dealing with the person’s life dimensions of the emotional, mental, physical, social, and spiritual. This concept could be applied [throughout the entire school district] to encourage a positive workplace for all.”

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